Sep 10, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Progress


David L. Weber, 2008

“This is a war of engines and octanes. I drink to the American auto industry and the American oil industry.” - JOSEPH STALIN, 1942.

Venango County’s last link to petrochemical processing has operated on the Oil City - Rouseville Road (Route 8) since 1943 - 1944. Originally constructed to process 100 -octane gasoline for U.S. Navy airplanes and PT boats, the facility now manufactures BHT antioxidant preservatives and meta cresol. Here is its history:

Pennzoil Company expanded its gasoline cracking capacity at Plant 2, located on the Oil City outskirts, 1930 - 1931. The National Petroleum News carried the following, October 8, 1930:

“The Pennzoil Co., Oil City, Pa., has let a contract to the Arthur G. McKee Co., Cleveland, for the construction of a second Dubbs cracking unit at its plant No. 2, near Oil City. This plant is to be of 2500 barrels per day capacity, for cracking charging stocks from Pennsylvania crude, gas oil mainly, and is to embody the most recent developments in handling this type of stock.

“The first unit of this type installed by the Pennzoil Co. was completed more than a year ago, and has been operating on the same type of charging stock during the past year….

“This installation on which work is to begin soon, is unique in that it is to be a ‘coalition’ plant, a sort of community affair. Several refiners in the Oil City district have combined their interests in cracking operations, and the final conclusion of this building contract is the outcome of negotiations which have been going on for several months, it is understood.

“Four refining companies in this area have entered the plan and will utilize the cracking facilities thus provided. These are: Pennzoil Co., Independent [Quaker State] Refining Co., Continental Refining Co., all of Oil City; and the Empire Oil Works, Inc. [Wolf’s Head Oil Refining Company], whose plant is at Reno, a short distance from Oil City.”

Cities Service Company, which operated a 3500 BOPD - refinery at Titusville, later became involved with the Pennzoil cooperative cracking plant. A retired Pennzoil management official recalled how the cracking plant operated, 1989:

“…. Plant 2 was a cooperative plant owned by four little refiners. Wolf’s Head, Continental Refining Co., Cities Service and Pennzoil all owned part. They would pump down their fuel oil and gasoline and run it through the thermal reformer and we would pump the gasoline back to them. It was the biggest mess for accounting you ever saw.”

Pennzoil’s safety inspectors had jurisdiction over the other refineries involved with the gasoline cracking plant, 1930s - 1940s.

Pennsylvania Refining Company’s Titusville refinery swapped gasoline and fuel oil with the nearby Cities Service operation; in exchange for petrolatum, wax, and wax distillates, c. 1940. Some of the Pennsylvania Refining gasoline and fuel oil was sent by Cities Service via pipeline to the Pennzoil cracking plant.

New technology developed in time for World War II would help the United States Navy and Army Air Force - and impact the Oil Region refiners. Three major oil companies were involved with these developments, according to author Daniel Yergin, 1991:

“Perhaps the most daunting challenge of all in the Allied fuel chain was the supply of 100 - octane gasoline. Developed in the early and middle 1930s, principally by Shell researchers in Holland and the United States, 100 - octane fuel made possible higher aircraft performance - greater bursts of speed, more power, quicker takeoffs, longer range, greater maneuverability - than the 75 - or 87 - octane fuels customarily used…. But before the actual outbreak of war, there was no significant market for the much more expensive fuel, and in its absence, some companies, notably Shell, followed by Jersey [Standard], took major risks in making large investments in 100 - octane research and capability. Shell put much of the 100 - octane gasoline that it did manufacture into storage.

“…. The advantages of 100 - octane gasoline were proved in the Battle of Britain in 1940, when the 100 - octane powered British Spitfires outperformed the [German] Messerschmitt 109s, fueled on 87 - octane gasoline.

“…. Almost all the Allies’ needs for 100 - octane gasoline had to be met by American production - almost 90 per cent of the total by 1944.… The Americans responded with a huge construction and engineering program, one of the largest and most complex investment undertakings of the war. Fortunately, in the late 1930s, a new refining technology - catalytic cracking - was under development, principally by a Frenchman named Eugene Houdry and by Sun Oil. The first significant advance over the thermal cracking technique facilitated the production of 100 - octane gasoline.”

The Venango - Crawford County oil refiners involved in the cooperative cracking plant would participate in the World War II high octane gasoline production program. Construction began on a Houdry catalytic cracking unit at Pennzoil Plant 2, 1942 - 1943. A high octane gasoline alkylization plant - Pennzoil Plant 3 - was erected adjacent to the Continental Refining Company and Allied Barrel Company plants.

The cooperative aviation gasoline plant was operated by Pennzoil for the United States Government.

A 1978 newspaper article recalled the plant’s operation:

“The plant along Oil Creek was built by the Federal Government during [World War II] as a production center for high octane gasoline. The gasoline was used solely for military purposes, with most of the 2,500 barrels produced daily going to Navy pools. Some was shipped to nearby airfields, however.

“Although the Defense Plant Corporation owned the Rouseville plant, under the War Assets Administration of the Federal Government, Pennzoil controlled its day - to -day operations and ran it in conjunction with its adjacent refinery.”

Approximately 100 - 130 people were employed by Pennzoil Plant 3.

Disaster struck the 100 - octane gasoline plant, July 6, 1944. A ‘valve charged with static electricity” exploded, leading to a series of blasts, followed by fire.

The Titusville Herald carried the following account, July 7, 1944:

“At least six men were killed and a score of others burned today in a series of explosions at a plant of the Pennzoil Co., between Oil City and Rouseville.

“Two of the victims died almost instantly while four more succumbed later in [the] Oil City hospital.

“A seventh man, Walter Winters, 52, of Rouseville, died of a heart attack while watching the fire that followed the explosions,

“…. The first explosion occurred in a unit about 75 yards square surrounded by a 10 - foot high wall….”

“Some employees, their clothing aflame, leaped from plant windows after the first blast. Others raced to safety, and one was believed killed scaling the wall.

“…. Fire fighting equipment from Oil City, Franklin, Reno, Titusville, Rouseville and Rocky Grove answered the emergency call.

“A small brick laboratory across the highway from the affected unit and an auto parked nearby were destroyed by the blasts and ensuing flames.”

Two additional injured plant workers died of burns on July 6 and 7, 1944. Little was said by the national news media regarding the refinery explosion, because it occurred the very same day as the Ringling Brothers Circus tent fire (which killed 169 people) in Hartford, CT.

Supervisory personnel in the plant laboratory building left for lunch at an Oil City restaurant 15 minutes before the explosions and fire.

Despite severe fire damage, the “Hi - Octane Plant” was repaired and back in operation by late 1944 - in time to supply fuel for the U.S. Navy’s final Pacific campaigns against Japan.

High octane gasoline production at Oil City ceased after August - September, 1945. Pennzoil Plant 3 was listed for sale by the War Assets Administration, 1946. December 17, 1946, the following news release appeared:

“The Koppers Co., Inc. of Pittsburgh today submitted a bid of $1,230, 125 for purchase of a Pennzoil plant and facilities in Oil City, Pa., from the War Assets Administration, the Cleveland regional office reported.”

January 14, 1947, the sale of the high - octane gasoline complex to Koppers was confirmed.

Koppers Company; designers, builders and operators of coke ovens / coal tar manufacturing plants; started a coal tar chemicals manufacturing division, 1946. Other Western Pennsylvania chemical manufacturing plants purchased by the Pittsburgh - based firm were at Petrolia (former Bear Creek Manufacturing Company - Pennsylvania Coal Products Company, once affiliated with Pennsylvania Refining Company), Butler County; and Bridgeville, Allegheny County.

Pennzoil retained ownership of the Houdry patent “cat cracker,” which remained in operation until the late 1960s.

Bob Venturella wrote the following concerning Koppers, 1978:

“The [Koppers] firm felt that the Rouseville plant would fit nicely into this new [chemical] field and proceeded to convert the Hi - Octane Plant into an industrial chemical manufacturing facility.

“Much of 1947 was taken up by the conversion, but in July of that year the facility began producing a chemical additive for synthetic soaps and plastics - the first product manufactured at the new Koppers plant.

“…. Full - scale commercial production began at the Koppers plant in early December of 1947 with the introduction on the market of two chemical additives. One was designed to prevent the formation of gums and other residues in petroleum products, while the other was to be used as a softening agent in synthetic rubber and other products.

“Within a short period of time operations were expanded to include the manufacture of byproducts of coke to be used in plastics, papers, detergents and other items. Over 200 employees, most of them local residents, were employed during the initial phases of production.”

Two - thirds of the large work force consisted of construction and maintenance workers who converted the plant from an aviation gasoline to chemical manufacturing facility.

May 18, 1949, a “flash fire” in the Koppers’ plant’s laboratory burned nine people (none fatally). The lab department was later moved from Oil City.

Several major strikes hit the plant at various times. Production was interrupted by a five - month walkout during the summer and fall of 1980. A serious fire cause $4,000,000 in damage to the Koppers facility, December 26, 1980. Repairs commenced immediately, production resumed in 1981.

Koppers Company sold the Oil City chemical plant to Neville - Synthese Organics, a French - American partnership with offices in Pittsburgh, 1985 - 1986.

NSO sold the Route 8 plant to Rhone - Poulenc, another French chemical manufacturer, 1989 - 1990. Renovations to the nearly 50 - year old facility took place during 1992.

Merichem Company, a Houston - based petrochemicals manufacturer; and Sasol Chemical Industries, Ltd., chemical firm headquartered in Sasolburg, South Africa, formed a partnership, 1997. The Merisol, USA joint venture of these firms acquired the 55 - year old Oil City chemical plant from Rhodia (Rhone - Poulenc), January 16, 1998.

New production units (including distillation equipment, furnaces and flare tower) were added for manufacturing meta cresol, 2005 - 2007. Meta cresol is a coal tar - based compound used in making agrochemicals, synthetic menthol, thermal sensitive papers, synthetic vitamins, antioxidants and fragrances. The local Merisol plant has long been a producer of BHT, an additive used in the production of cereal boxes and other packaging materials.

A February 20, 2008, Oil City Derrick article highlighted Merisol’s involvement with local education and industrial development:

“Merisol Antioxidants has been a sponsoring member of the Venango County Industrial / Community Advisory Panel for the past 14 years. I - CAP is a forum for discussion and education between community representatives and industries in the area.

“Through its participation in I - CAP has sent speakers to local civic organizations, sponsored tours of its facility, volunteered employee time for local environmental projects and sponsored community awareness projects.”

Merisol Antioxidants’ Oil City plant currently processes coal and petroleum based tars into meta cresol and BHT. The facility’s alkylization and distillation units set production records in July and December of 2007.

Approximately 40 - 50 people have been normally employed in recent years.